Descent and Assent: Lent Devotions

This Lent Abingdon Press has published my book, Thank God It’s Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Table.  The book is a sort of companion to my Thank God It’s Friday, which received a gratifying reception from the church.

Thank God It’s Thursday utilizes the last chapters of John’s Gospel to reflect upon the significance of our mealtimes with Jesus.  I hope that you will enjoy these meditations during this holiest time of the Christian year.  And I hope you will check out Thank God It’s Thursday.

Descent and Assent

At this table, on this night we are at a turning point from the incarnate Jesus’ ministry here among us.  He begins a cross over through his death to resurrection and future life with us in the community of love.  The one who descended to us from the realm of light and life (1:1, 9; 3:13) is preparing to ascend to the Father who sent him.  In him, heaven has done business with earth; now in him earth shall be exalted heavenward.  The Son of God, Eternal Logos, the One who was with God at the beginning, the One who is God, strips for work and kneels before us.Print

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 

On another night, ancestor Jacob had seen, in a dream, a great ladder let down from heaven with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28).  Tonight is the eve of “the hour” when there is once again heaven-to-earth traffic.  Something about the Father refuses to be confined to heaven, God in heaven alone.  God so loved the world that God gave God’s Son for the world (3:16). The Son descends in order to reclaim a world in the grip of night; soon the Son will ascend in order to bring the whole back to God of Light.

C. S. Lewis depicts Christ’s ascent and descent as image of all that Christ did and said:

In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend.  He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity….  But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole world with Him…  One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water in black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover.[1]

This is the dramatic, paradoxical tension that John sustains throughout his gospel: the divine has become human.  Eternity has entered time.  And when God shows up as the Word Made Flesh, at table or anywhere else, be prepared to have your boundaries of the human and the divine, of eternity and time, shattered.

We couldn’t come to God, so God came to us, meeting us where we live, in the most mundane of locations – at the dinner table.  Because our attempts at righteousness always went bad, Christ climbs down to the unrighteous (2 Cor. 5:21), then ascends a bloody cross, demonstrating not only the depths of our evil but also plumbing the unfathomable depths of God’s love.  And because God elected to be God for us, God with us, God in Christ could not return to God the Father without bringing us along, offering back to the Father the whole, beloved, yet deeply forlorn and lost human race.

Will Willimon

Thank God It’s Thursday, available from Abingdon Press


[1] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Collins, 1960 [1947]), 115-116.

His Hour Had Come: Lent Devotions

This Lent, Abingdon Press has published my book, Thank God It’s Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Table.  The book is a sort of companion to my Thank God It’s Friday, which received a gratifying reception from the church.

Thank God It’s Thursday utilizes the last chapters of John’s Gospel to reflect upon the significance of our mealtimes with Jesus.  I hope that you will enjoy these meditations during this holiest time of the Christian year.  And I hope you will check out Thank God It’s Thursday.

Print

His hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.

We awaited this hour throughout the Gospel of John.  Some of us thought that his hour would be an hour of grandeur, an high moment when Jesus would at last throw off  his humble humanity and begin to act like a the Messiah we wanted him to be.  But no, his hour will not be a triumphal march into Jerusalem, when he seizes power, takes over the government, and kicks out the Romans.  His hour will be spent with friends around the dinner table, patiently giving us the core of his teaching.

John says that Jesus’ “last supper” was on the eve of the celebration of Passover, Israel’s Fourth of July, hour of Independence from slavery.  Jews are those who know by heart the great prayer, “Hear on Israel, the Lord your God is” (the one and only) “God.” (Deut. 6:4)  God’s people are not free to bow before other lords and lordlets, even one so ruthlessly presumptive as Caesar.  How bitterly ironic that on Passover, Israel’s grand day of independence from slavery, some of God’s cherished people collaborate with pagan Caesar to put to death God’s Son.  When all Jerusalem celebrates the actual feast, Jesus will be lying in the tomb (19:38-42) and Caesar’s gods will think they are victorious.

Jesus had spoken rather ominously of “my hour” (2:24; 7:30; 8:20).  “My hour” is a decisive moment.  Here at the table we are told that at last his hour has come.  Luke speaks of Jesus’ death as an exodus (Luke 9:31), clearly evoking Passover and deliverance.  John calls his hour a departure (metabaino, a “cross over,” John 13:1).  In John, Jesus is crossing from this world to another, making a crossing before us, returning to where he had come before Incarnation (1:1-5, 14).  When someone dies, we say that they have “passed away.”  Jesus is passing over.  Thus John gives heightened meaning to “Passover.” Jesus is passing over not just from slavery to freedom but also from death to life, passing over from this world to another.

And yet, here at table with his friends, in celebrating a meal, the most social and communal of human acts, Jesus shows that he has no intention of crossing over alone; he will, in some sense, take us with him.  As he lifts the cup and passes the bread, he is leading us to a place we would not have, could not have gone without his taking us there.

Will Willimon

Thank God It’s Thursday from Abingdon Press

Upcoming Seminars

Will Willimon will be leading teaching events at the following venues in the next few months. If you are in the area, be sure to check out the event and sign up!

February 28 – “Preaching with Karl Barth” – A day-long seminar based upon Will’s book, Conversations with Barth on Preaching.  Mt. Shepherd Retreat Center, Asheboro, NC.  www.mtshepherd.org

April 9 – “Preaching Resurrection” – A day of reflections upon the task of preaching after Easter, Sioux Falls Seminary, Sioux Falls, SD  rsisk@ssfseminary.edu

April 24-26 –  “College of Preachers,” – A unique three day, small group, intensive course on improving preaching.  Dallas, TX.  cseitz@wycliffe.utoronto.ca

April 27-28  – “Dillard Forum on Preaching,” at Trinity UMC and Union Seminary, Richmond, VA. KMcFayden@usem.edu

May 15 –  “2013 Festival of Homiletics.”  Nashville, TN, david@goodpreacher.com

May 19-20 – Preaching Festival, Monica Park Christian Church, Garland, TX. eddiehill9@aol.com

New from Will Willimon: Thank God It’s Thursday

Thank God It’s Thursday is the prequel to bestselling author Will Willimon’s highly successful, Thank God It’s Friday. Following the book of John, Will Willimon focuses on Jesus’ teaching of his disciples prior to his own death but also before their own hour of decision. The climax of the Gospel is when Jesus pours out his life on the cross—surely an enactment and demonstration of the power of God’s self-sacrificial love.Print

So to sustain and fortify his followers for the difficulties ahead, Jesus prepares them by teaching and offering sacraments of self-giving, through which they (and we) experience the grace and presence of the risen Lord. This book can equip Christians to face their hardships as they humbly serve with the promise of God’s abiding presence already made good by his outpouring of sacrificial love. Written with the clarity, depth, and insight that are Will Willimon’s trademark, this book offers afresh the challenge and grace of the message of the Resurrected One.

During Lent, be sure to check willwillimon.com for weekly devotional messages from Thank God It’s Thursday as well! Keep up with Will on Facebook and twitter.

Click here to buy Thank God It’s Thursday from Abingdon Press

Becoming Like Little Children

Though Jesus did not, at first, impress us as the Messiah (by refusing to live up to our expectations of what a messiah is), eventually, some got the point and worshiped him. They adored him, not necessarily as the means to a better world, not as an effective catalyst for social change, but rather as the way God really is, all the way down. He is reality, and in him, we see that reality is peace. True, it is a peace “that passes all understanding.” It is not peace that one achieves by studying the course of world history or by meditating upon the human condition. His peace comes as a gift from the one who is known, paradoxically, as the Prince of Peace, the clue to what’s really going on in the world, the revelation of who God really is.

So Jesus hangs upon a bloody cross, humiliated before the whole world. The mob taunts, “If you are really tight with God, command your legions of angels to take charge, to come down and defeat your enemies and deliver you.”

But Jesus just hanged there. He breathed his last, and he died. This is the way God’s kingdom comes? This is the way God wins victory? A stupendous claim, not made before or since by any religion: God not only takes the side of the innocent victim of violence and injustice but becomes one of them.

Jesus advocated no systematic program of human reform, never recommended any collective social adjustments, no matter how badly needed or enlightened. Jesus was not big on ethical codes, had no ideology, did no interesting work in political science or social ethics, and never put forth a plan of action, other than the (seemingly) wildly impractical notions that the first will be last, that we must turn the other cheek to those who strike us, and that we should become like little children.

From The Best of Will Willimon (Abingdon, 2012.  Check out Will’s novel, Incorporation, a wild ride through the contemporary church – satire and slapstick with serious theological intent.  Available from Cascade Press https://wipfandstock.com/store/incorporation.

Yes, Lord Amen!

It’s been fun to see the response to my novel, Incorporation, (Cascade Press).  Kevin Seymour plans to enter Duke Divinity School in the fall to prepare to be a pastor after a lifetime of distinguished public service in North Carolina.  Kevin posted this review of the novel recently on Amazon. I was particularly pleased by his point of view as a person who is preparing for ministry in the church. 

-Will

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I recommend Incorporation with enthusiasm. Thanks be to God for Willimon’s strike at a fictional tale, where he’s set free to reveal truths all too uncomfortable for real lives. But even jaded and experienced readers will need to brace themselves for the people in and around Hope Church.

Pettiness, envy, greed, and an appalling business-only approach to the ministry of Hope Church will leave you wondering where Jesus is in all this. The unmerited love of God shows up in astonishing and unexpected ways. Just as the author is set free to tell tales and dream up characters — so too are the lovable but mostly detestable folks in the story set free to try and lives outside of God’s love.

As someone about to embark on the greatest adventure of my life, answering a mid-life call to ordained ministry, Incorporation comes at an opportune time. So, it’s these people I’ll be leading? Yes Lord Amen!

As the story unfolds, it’s hard to find one among them to like. Who’s the hero among all the goats?

Thanks be to God for the true relief found in the funny spots. In a tribute to Willimon’s Southern heritage, he gives us an out-and-out fight among grown men which is altogether grotesque, ridiculous, violent, and hilarious.

The staff of this big church in a big mess must be completely void of the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives. But the ever-faithful laity will please you (mostly) as they diligently stride along the journey.

By tale’s end we see the mysterious power of the Lord’s Supper really take effect, and a moving sermon by a forgotten and unsung preacher. We get to witness transformation of one’s heart which you will give you an incredulous and pleasing chuckle. Even she finally came around? Unbelievable!

God’s will cannot be undone, though. The unearned love of this gracious God saves the lowly right along with the upright. And here I sit at story’s end so thankful that by the grace of God that even I am saved by that same faith. What a ride this story is. A Preacher once told a story……

Interview with Faith and Leadership at Duke University

Bishop Willimon was recently interviewed about his new novel Incorporation by Faith and Leadership, a blog by Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. Read what Willimon had to say about church life, his new book, and God.

Q: You have written many books, but this is your first novel. What is it about?

“Incorporation” is about Hope Church, which is somewhere in the Midwest, a large, aging suburban church and its inhabitants. It’s about a church staff that is busy doing divine work, but you wouldn’t know it from their contentious staff meetings and their backbiting, and the envy that goes on.

It’s about clergy called to do the work of God but finding that work challenging in different ways. It’s about laypersons who have a greater sense of God’s grace and God’s action than the clergy who are supposed to be leading them.

It’s about a young man called to the ministry, wide-eyed and naive, coming into all of this mélange of human in the divine that is Hope Church.

Ultimately, it’s about the triumph of the grace of God that these people are caught in. They’re not only caught in the mundane, utterly flat, domestic business of the church, but they’re also caught by God, who refuses to let them go, and who shows up at odd moments, and often seems absent from the divine work they are doing.

I hope it’s an affectionate but truthful look at the church from the inside out.

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Click here for the full interview.